This isn’t completely true, of course. They’re people. They don’t, or shouldn’t, belong to anyone but themselves. But to be a writer, an artist, a musician, or any sort of entertainer, is to give people little shreds of yourself – over, and over, and over again. This is true no matter how commercial, or calculated, or patently artificial the stuff you produce might be: even if you’re putting on an act, even if you’re putting on an act that has a lot of creators, it’s still a document of you, what you said or did or how you moved or how you sounded at a certain time; it doesn’t exist without you.
If it works – this process of giving yourself to people – it works only because those pieces of you speak to people: they allow people to project their own meanings, or feelings, or needs, or actual or desired identities, onto you. Every single person who takes up that little shred of your life will end up putting more of themselves than of you into it (because they don’t know you, obviously) but what they end up with, in the end, is a version of you: a mental construct, maybe (generously) 5% actual You-the-Person and 95% You-as-Composed-of-Associations-and-Projections, some chimerical weird imaginary friend who somehow carries all of the feelings of solace or joy or excitement that they got from your work, and toward whom they feel all the kinship or gratitude or friendliness anyone would naturally feel toward someone who gave them all this, who gave it over and over, saying, implicitly: for you, for you, this is all for you, I love you. Of course, of course, they care about you. You, the Celebrity; You, the Imaginary Friend. Even if you might not actually be able to stand them. Even if they might not actually be able to stand you. Even if you are nothing like what they imagine.
And then you die.
Like: David Foster Wallace. As you can maybe imagine, due to the fact that I talk about him all the goddamn time, David Foster Wallace was someone with whom I had a firm and long-standing imaginary friendship. He died; he died unexpectedly, and young, and awfully; I read the post on Gawker. I texted the news to someone, then I sat there and said, aloud, “we’ll never get another book.”
We won’t. I won’t. Me, me, me. It was a completely narcissistic reaction, which I didn’t realize until much later, when I read the obituary on the AV Club and some knob was going off in the comments about how David Foster Wallace was just like him, you know, they were from the same state, and they thought alike, and if he were smarter and funnier he’d be David Foster Wallace, and I was sitting there hating the guy and then I realized: David Foster Wallace probably wouldn’t have liked me. Maybe I wouldn’t have liked him either. He went off on rants about political correctness; he had theories about language and usage that would irritate the pants off me if they came from any other source; he wrote that one piece about porn that had me swinging between admiration for his writing and empathy and rage at his elitist, Othering stance; I fucking hate math, sports, and abstract systems of thought that I can’t tie to lived experience or practice, and these things, if I understand correctly, were great and abiding passions for one David Foster Wallace, Writer. I had no greater claim to my DFW than this dude had to his, so how could I judge him? And why was I so willing to do so?
The thing is, Michael Jackson just died. I’m seeing loving tributes all over the place – some professionally written pieces, some personal testimonies. While I recognize that many of these people are paying tribute to their Michael Jacksons, their childhoods, all of that stuff that’s cathected in the first few notes of the bass on Beat It or the Thriller video, I can’t help feel that we have a responsibility to look past our own Michael Jacksons, and to the fact that it is absolutely, undoubtedly, certainly more likely than not that he committed sexual assault more than once in his lifetime – and that to do anything else is to contribute to a culture of silence surrounding sexual assault and abuse.
Because I’m seeing people arguing that there’s no plausible evidence that he ever did those things.
That’s a step too far.
Here’s the thing, here’s another guy with whom many people had intensely personal relationships based on his work, and who died, unexpectedly and young and awfully: John Lennon. John Lennon hit women, and was a misogynist for a very large portion of the time during which he produced this work. Before I read certain posts over at The Curvature, I did not know this. It was not part of the commonly told story of John Lennon. Now: this takes absolutely nothing away from his work, although “Run For Your Life” (I’d rather see you dead, girl, than see you with another man) will probably never, for me, be comfortable listening. I can also cite John Lennon as a man who became a feminist, who challenged and worked to unlearn his own misogyny, who wrote “Mother” (you didn’t want me… Mommy, don’t go) and maybe got all of his shit about Women out in the open and worked through it: a man who was, I would argue, actually substantially healed by feminism. This maybe makes it easier for me to look at and accept the fact that he did have those issues about Women, and that they (along with the fact that our culture accepts and encourages misogyny, and along with his enormous fame) resulted in him actually hurting actual women.
Now: Michael Jackson had issues about Childhood. You don’t have to know much to know that, right? It’s hard not to see his childhood as reflected in those old performances – this undeniably gifted, much-beloved little dude who was already performing in this eerily precise and adult way, as if he’d been trained to it, which he was, because it was the only value he had in the eyes of own father – without realizing that, for Michael Jackson, Childhood must have been a very weird mix of bliss and self-worth and self-loathing and terror. It’s hard not to feel empathy for him.
Here’s the thing, though: he publicly endangered his own children. He was clearly unstable and/or addicted in ways that meant he should in no way have been allowed to have custody of his children. He acted in clearly suspicious and predatory ways toward many, many children. He was in a position of authority and trust that allowed him to have access to many, many children. He was alleged to have sexually abused more than one child, and given both the fact that it is exceedingly difficult to successfully prosecute sexual assault and the fact that he had the money and resources necessary to settle the cases or bring on defense attorneys willing and able and gifted enough to utilize every single dirty trick that we all deplore in court, it would have likely been impossible to convict him even if, say, the assaults had been caught on tape.
And, given the fact that sexual abuse is common and underreported, and that false allegations are rare, and that children rarely if ever give coherent accounts of it because they are children, and have been raped, I consider the evidence against him to be so very overwhelming as to make any less-than-serious treatment of it – like, say, failing to address it, or minimizing it, or rationalizing it by pointing out that he had entirely understandable issues around Childhood – to be highly irresponsible, and to reinforce the rape culture in which we live, in which rape and sexual assault are regarded as private, umimportant, excusable transgressions, and in which confronting an abuser or talking about his history of abuse openly or insisting it must play an important, even central role in our evaluation of the abuser’s life and legacy, is somehow an attack on him.
I don’t want Michael Jackson to become another John Lennon. I don’t want him to be someone whose abusive behaviors are erased from the record. Something some feminist has to dredge up later. I used to think it was unlikely. Now, I just hope it is.
Some of this may have to do with the fact that I might be a little too young to have ever developed a personal Michael Jackson. “Beat It” was the first song I ever liked – the first song, in fact, that registered for me as a song, rather than as sound – and I remember trying to moonwalk, and I have vague memories about Captain EO just like everyone else. But my first real memories of him are of the first abuse allegations. Now, when I see the videos – people keep talking about how he danced – I see that he moved maybe, sort of, like David Foster Wallace wrote: there was the same elasticity, the same joy (I always thought of David Foster Wallace’s writing as, somehow, the most purely joyful that I had ever read; it was how he played with the language, not even necessarily what he said; I didn’t know him), the same simultaneous sense of “how the hell is he doing that? People can’t do that” and “oh, holy Christ, that looks good.” I can see why people are drawn to it; why they love it; why they might love, even, in a way, the man himself. For giving that to them.
But he was an abuser, both publicly and in ways that we can’t ever fully know. We have to make that part of the picture. Because the rest of it – the joy, or the solace, or the kinship – that was never only him. That was never even him.
That was you.
That was always you.